Bus workers demand respect—that was the message from thousands of striking drivers in London and Essex, who brought services to a standstill on Monday this week.
More than 2,000 drivers at East London Bus Group (ELBG) joined a growing battle against bosses’ attempts to use the recession to impose a pay freeze. They struck at the same time as hundreds of workers at First Essex.
Hundreds of strikers joined picket lines outside ELGB’s six garages.
The action was solid with only a tiny handful of buses making it onto the road.
Workers stressed that while they are determined to win over pay and conditions, the issues behind the strike run much deeper.
“We have to get together and fight,” said one driver on the 100‑strong picket line in Barking. “I have worked on the buses for 32 years. Management have no respect for us.”
Another driver complained that not enough money is spent maintaining the buses. Others talked about the long hours and stress of the job.
The drivers at ELGB face attacks on their pensions and other conditions.
Several strikers talked about a growing culture of fear.
Many drivers believe the company is trying to drive out experienced workers and replace them with new starters who are paid around £100 a week less.
One Unite union rep said that he has seen the number of disciplinaries double in recent months. “They have also become more serious,” he explained.
“Things that used to be seen as small issues are now categorised as gross misconduct and could lose you your job.”
At Romford, many of the pickets said that they had never been on strike before. But it was clear that the action is popular and well supported, and morale was high.
Over at Upton Park, pickets were warming themselves by a brazier. “It’s about time we came out on strike,” said Tony.
“This is about how the company treats us.”
ELBG is owned by Australia’s biggest investment bank, Macquarie Group, a company worth over £133 billion.
None of the ELBG workers have fallen for the bosses’ lies that they can’t afford a pay rise. “The recession doesn’t affect the bus industry,” one striker said.
“People still need transport, and they still rely on the buses. Anyway, the company is paid a fixed amount by Transport for London to run certain routes. It is the same old story—money for shareholders, for bonuses and for bankers. But nothing for us.”
One driver pointed out that the company has become very “top heavy” in recent years. “There are so many managers now,” he said.
“And they all seem to have new cars. It would take me a year to earn what some of their cars cost.”
Other drivers discussed tactics. “We should all be on strike across London,” said one striker. “Bus workers face the same issues everywhere. We have strength in numbers.”
At 8am there were well over 100 men and women on the multi-racial picket line outside ELGB's biggest garage in West Ham.
The strikers were determined to build organisation in the massive new garage from which a number of major routes run.
Over 900 drivers work out of West Ham, many with just a few months service.
'Its a brilliant turn out,' said Daniel, who has worked the routes for over 15 years. 'The last few times we were supposed to strike, it has been called off so it’s really good to see this.
'I haven’t been on strike in all the time I’ve been here. Its time for a stronger leadership.'
John, also with long service and Alan who started work there just six months ago agreed that the time had come to stand up. 'Management said no one would back us,' said Alan. 'But whose laughing now? They are having to drive buses out themselves, just to try say something was running.”
Around 20 buses went out of West Ham—some driven by managers to the jeers of pickets. But this did not break the spirit of drivers who were boosted to hear of the total closure of other garages in the group.
'It’s important to strike,' said John. 'Conditions have got to change. We sometimes work seven days on the trot, up to 60 hours a week, unsociable hours.
'But we have to come together, we need to pull all the companies out together, if all the buses stopped then you see how strong we are.”
Unite union reps are discussing further action.
Hundreds of bus workers strike in Essex
Hundreds of drivers at First Essex struck on Monday of this week against a pay freeze. And thousands of First drivers in London are balloting over joining the action.
First has been trying to bribe workers into accepting a pay freeze for this year by offering 2.5 or 3 percent for the following year.
First drivers in the north west of England suspended planned strike action to ballot on a new offer this week.
But drivers at depots in Hadleigh and Basildon threw out First’s offer last week—with a vote of 171 to 77—and so rejoined the Essex action.
Around 30 drivers joined the picket at Hadleigh. Many of the drivers felt that this was a “make or break” strike and that Unite should be escalating the action beyond one-day strikes.
And there was an upbeat mood on the picket line outside the Basildon depot. Despite the bitter cold, a dozen drivers were on a lively picket line in the early hours.
The burning sense of injustice was evident among workers who had produced good profits for a company that is forcing them to work increasingly unsociable work patterns.
Unite union chair Bill “Nobby” Clarke said, “We feel let down—but we are showing solidarity.
“There has been a great turn out on the picket line.
“We’ve delivered on our side now it is time for the company to deliver.”
Bus drivers in Essex are striking again in two weeks time.
Thanks to all those sent in reports.
Thanks to everyone who sent in reports and pictures from the picket lines.